Time for the never-ssenes?

1qisa_b For those of you who haven't had the experience of attending a mainline seminary or studying the Bible in an academic institution, the Essenes are almost as much a matter of contemporary Biblical orthodoxy as the historical-critical method.

A first-century ascetic sect with arguable links to John the Baptist, and perhaps even on nodding terms with Jesus, they lived in caves in the desert.

Or did they?

I was shocked, shocked, shocked to find out that an Israeli scholar said in Time, that, (like the Tooth Fairy), the Essenes of Dead Sea Scroll fame never existed. The lede seems to indicate that Tim McGirk, who interviewed her, found her scholarship pretty convincing, too.

Biblical scholars have long argued that the Dead Sea Scrolls were the work of an ascetic and celibate Jewish community known as the Essenes, which flourished in the 1st century A.D. in the scorching desert canyons near the Dead Sea. Now a prominent Israeli scholar, Rachel Elior, disputes that the Essenes ever existed at all -- a claim that has shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.

"Shaken the bedrock of Biblical scholarship?" That's extraordinary on a couple of grounds. If the "bedrock of Biblical scholarship" depended on whether the Essenes existed, or actually wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the work of Biblical experts, which has been going on for centuries without any reference to the Essenes until relatively recently, would look quite different than it does. And where is the research to back up the claims she makes?

Elior, who teaches Jewish mysticism at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, claims that the Essenes were a fabrication by the 1st century A.D. Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus and that his faulty reporting was passed on as fact throughout the centuries. As Elior explains, the Essenes make no mention of themselves in the 900 scrolls found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. "Sixty years of research have been wasted trying to find the Essenes in the scrolls," Elior tells Time. "But they didn't exist. This is legend on a legend."

Note that we aren't getting this claim from an archeologist, or a Hebrew Scripture professor, but from a teacher of Jewish mysticism. And then look at the breathless qualifiers in this paragraph.

So who were the real authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Elior theorizes that the Essenes were really the renegade sons of Zadok, a priestly caste banished from the Temple of Jerusalem by intriguing Greek rulers in 2nd century B.C. When they left, they took the source of their wisdom-- their scrolls-- with them. "In Qumran, the remnants of a huge library were found," Elior says, with some of the early Hebrew texts dating back to the 2nd century B.C. Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest known version of the Old Testament dated back to the 9th century A.D. "The scrolls attest to a biblical priestly heritage," says Elior, who speculates that the scrolls were hidden in Qumran for safekeeping.

Are "theorizing" and "speculating" good enoough to get a scholar into Time?Frankly I find that distubing. It lowers the bar for this venerable magazine, putting its scholarly standards somewhere in the realm of those lovely tabloids that I walk by in the supermarket on my way to pick up People for some real news. If Elior has any solid evidence for these claims, it certainly isn't obvious in this piece.

But wait. The best, or the worst, is yet to come.

Elior's theory has landed like a bombshell in the cloistered world of biblical scholarship. James Charlesworth, director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project at Princeton Theological Seminary and an expert on Josephus, says it is not unusual that the word Essenes does not appear in the scrolls. "It's a foreign label," he tells Time. "When they refer to themselves, it's as 'men of holiness' or 'sons of light.'" Charlesworth contends that at least eight scholars in antiquity refer to the Essenes. One proof of Essene authorship of the Dead Sea Scrolls, he says, is the large number of inkpots found by archaeologists at Qumran.

Elior's "theory" may be a "bombshell" or it may be a wet firecracker. Funny thing, but Dr. Charlesworth doesn't sound too upset to me. Maybe the writer left those Charlesworth quotes out. If McGirk wanted to prove that Elior's theory had any credibility or that it had even awakened signficant conversation among Scripture scholars, he really needed more than one quote from Bible scholars to make his point. I admire Elior for having, she says, read all 39 volumes of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But is there solid scholarship to back up her hypothesis? Does the writer here care enough to find out? I'd like to believe that he would, or did-but I don't see much evidence of it here.

Picture of a part of a Dead Sea Scroll is from Wikimedia Commons

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